As NSW goes to elections in March the issue of diversity in parliament has resurfaced again. The elections, which will determine the members of the 56th parliament of New South Wales, are scheduled to be held on 28 March.
With the numbers Indian immigrants rising sharply, their voting preferences and representation is of interest in these elections.
The Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s recent data shows that the Indian immigrant population in Australia is growing, with the number of permanent Indian immigrants jumping from 29,018 in 2011 to 40,051 in 2012.
The Indian-born population is increasing within Australia, making up the fourth largest migrant community, “equivalent to 5.7 per cent of Australia’s overseas born population and 1.5 per cent of Australia’s total population”.
Given the major demographic changes in Australian society, the matter of representation for many communities in politics and political institutions is important. What shape or form this representation should take, its actual nature and scope are matters that will be on the minds of voters and observers in these coming elections and in many other future elections.
Western Sydney’s population of Indian and Sri Lankan immigrants are rising. Within Seven Hills, 51.4 per cent of the population have both parents born overseas but this remains noticeably unreflected in local government.
Susai Benjamin, a lawyer of Tamil Indian origin, is the Labor candidate running for a seat in the Seven Hills electorate. He is a Blacktown city councillor, People of Australia Ambassador honoured by the Australian Multicultural Advisory Council, and has provided legal aid to refugees and Indian students.
Susai believes that it is critical to have politicians come from different cultural backgrounds, as “we need engagement with larger decision-making bodies”.
And when it comes to permanent residents, Susai believes that this is our future, so we need some “control over decision-making here”.
During Susai’s tenure as Blacktown Councillor, he campaigned to incorporate Tamil books into the major libraries in Blacktown. He was instrumental behind the launch of a Tamil book collection, in November 2014, in the largest library in Blacktown council. More than 150 people turned up for the launch.
Also in the fray for a seat in the Seven Hills electorate is independent candidate Indira Devi, who is of Indian-Malaysian background.
Indira is fighting for social issues including health, housing, the elderly and crime; issues she believes are neglected in the area.
“I want to make sure the community is not ignored, or bypassed, and services are provided to them,” she says.
Last year, Indira protested against the Blacktown Council’s plans of rezoning 448 homes to build infrastructure to support Blacktown’s future dense population. She was the organiser of the Save Our Homes protest that gained great support in 2014.
Both Susai and Indira claim that they would like to work for the disadvantaged.
Susai has also lobbied in the past for facilities for disabled people at the Seven Hills railway station.
One of Indira’s current campaign issues is to improve the laws regarding Pacific Islanders migrating to Australia who do not receive the same health and education benefits as other migrant communities.
Chartered accountant Raman Bhalla will be the Liberal candidate in the seat of Blacktown. Raman is the organiser of the Liberal Friends of India and his entry into the Liberal party in 2012 coincided with a Liberal win in the Blacktown council elections of 2012. Raman too is fighting for better services for the people in his area. Being an accountant he has a special interest in small businesses in the area.
The Indian population in Blacktown is one of the largest in the area, after Australian, English and Filipino. The Indian and South Asian population combined makes a sizeable group in Blacktown. However, the diversity within the South Asian group means that the cultural or ethnic background of a candidate need not appeal to voters.
Talking about the March elections and Indians in parliament, Hornsby shire’s deputy mayor Gurdeep Singh says that recognition of different cultures is important in politics.
“Australia is a melting pot of all different nationalities, religions, races, cultures and languages,” he says. “The smaller communities need representation at the political level. With permanent migrants, you cannot take away their regional culture, their way of thinking, their philosophy of life,” he adds.
Gurdeep says that ethnic minorities aren’t “necessarily underrepresented”, as the political selection process is stringent.
He explained that Indians arriving in Australia are mainly professionals whose skills and qualifications could serve them well should they venture into politics. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s figures show that in 2012, for example, 84 per cent of Indian immigrants come from the skilled migrants stream.
Gurdeep is the first Indian-born Australian to become a deputy mayor, and believes that his role in politics is one that is a “bridge between the Indian immigrant community and the wider Australian community comprising first generation or seventh generation migrants”.
With Indian immigration increasing and Indian students comprising 10 per cent of the international students in Australia, one hopes that parliaments and other political institutions will be responsive to a changing immigrant society.